Tuesday, April 28, 2009

I'm blogging for Examiner.com

My first article is here.

I'm still a little unclear how "journalistic" I need to be, so this article is just an event listing. But we'll see how it evolves.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Taken for a Ride




"It can become a daily practice to humanize the people that we pass on the street. When I do this, unknown people become very real for me. They come into focus as living beings who have joys and sorrows just like mine, as people who have parents and neighbors and friends and enemies, just like me. I also begin to have a heightened awareness of my own fears and judgments and prejudices that pop up out of nowhere about these ordinary people that I've never even met. I've gained insight into my sameness with all these people, as well as insight into what obscures this understanding and causes me to feel separate."--Pema Chodron, from Taking the Leap

My husband has a good friend who always stops to give money to the homeless. And he doesn't just give them money without looking at them, quickly handing them a buck and retreating back into his shell. He smiles and interacts with the person. This is just the kind of guy he is, my husband says. I think we all know a guy (or gal) like that, someone who is generous without making a show of it, someone whose personality is just inherently kind.

Mike once said that one of the reasons he married me was because I had a good heart. And I try to live up to that because that is the kind of person I want to be in the world. But, like many ordinary mortals, I also fall short sometimes.

Like the time that I was walking to work in the morning and exchanged glances with an old lady in a wheelchair. She was practically in the middle of the sidewalk, so to walk around her without acknowledging her presence would have been weird. So I smiled at her, and she looked at me and asked, "Excuse me, can you wheel me over to the CVS?"

I was pleased that I looked trustworthy enough for her to ask me for a favor. I took the handles of the wheelchair and started to push her. It was a lot harder than I thought--she wasn't obese, but not exactly svelte either, and I got the impression that the wheelchair was less than state-of-the-art. I pushed her down the sidewalk, trying my best not to crash into anyone. The chair kept wanting to turn toward the edge of the sidewalk, like an unruly shopping cart, and it took all of my meager arm strength to pull her back from the curb. She didn't say anything as I wheeled her which was a good thing because I was getting winded and talking would have been a strain. Finally we reached the entrance to CVS (would she need me to go in with her? Help her shop? Should I offer? I'd be late for work) and she said, "Actually, can you push me to those lights...down there." She pointed. Another two blocks. I shook my hands out and then repositioned them on the chair handles and resumed. When we got to the lights, I noticed we were in front of an apartment building. Judging from her messy hair and demeanor I had pegged her for homeless, but maybe she was just a little eccentric. It was certainly a nice building she lived in. She thanked me and it was the first time she smiled at me.

I went into a nearby Au Bon Pain to grab a multi-grain bagel, feeling good that I was able to help someone, make a connection with a stranger. Behind me, a guy in a ski hat asked me "Did she want you to push her in the chair?"

I paused in the doorway, "Yes."

"Ah, she got you. She's gotten me too a couple of times. I mean, how can you say no?"

The way he said it made it seem like I had been tricked. This was not a foreign feeling for me--I've found that being nice to strangers also has its drawbacks. She pegged me for a push-over is what happened. But she was an old woman, after all, and if she had to spend her days asking strangers to push her around, well, that must be a rotten deal for her.

Yet when I saw her again a few weeks later, I averted my eyes. Just pretended not to see her. I was late for work, true, but I also didn't want to push her. I was tired and it had been an ordeal. Let someone else do it, I thought. Some other pushover. I feel badly about that now. There's definitely a limit to my generosity--I give when it's convenient for me. And that's too bad. I'd like to me more like Mike's friend, giving everyone, no matter if I know them or not, my unfettered time and attention.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The route to happiness













"When you don't do the habitual thing, you're bound to feel some pain. I call it the detox period. You've been doing the same predictable thing to get away from that uneasy, uncomfortable, vulnerable feeling for so long, and now you're not. So you're left with that queasy feeling. This requires some getting used to and some ability to practice kindness and patience. It requires some curiosity to see what happens next. What happens when you abide with this shifting, fluid, universal energy? What happens if you pause and embrace the natural movements of life?"--Pema Chodron from Taking the Leap

I've been walking home after work lately. I can go one of two ways: down Huntington Avenue, where Northeastern University and the Massachusetts College of Art have their campuses, and then turn onto Longwood, past all the big Boston hospitals and the many, many Starbucks, past the Fens, until I hit Harvard Avenue and Coolidge Corner. The other way is to walk down Mass Ave., with its slightly down-at-the-heels merchants and restaurants, and the Berklee College of Music buildings, and then turn left to walk through Kenmore Square, past the Fenway parking lot, and into Brookline via busy, tree-lined Beacon street.

Both routes are relatively long--if I walk fast and don't make any stops for water or groceries, it takes me about an hour. I consider it my daily exercise,though, and this way I can avoid the overcrowded "T" during rush hour and when the Red Sox are playing. I heard once that if you can do something for three weeks straight it becomes a habit. I've tried to make a habit of going to the gym, but that hasn't stuck yet, I've tried to make a habit of eating a piece of fruit with every meal, but I'm lucky if I eat a banana. I buy packages of sliced strawberries and pineapple from Whole Foods, and then they sit untouched in my fridge until they're slimey and my husband has to eat them.

Then there are the habits that I WANT to change--they're even harder than the ones I'm trying to acquire. The automatic negative thoughts, my risk-aversion, my preoccupation with superficial things like appearance and money and status. I want a more spiritual, meaningful life, and I'm working at it a little at a time, but it's so easy to fall back on habit. There's a tear in my skirt--oh, no, I can't let anyone see me this way, I have to go buy a new outfit! (That was last week, and luckily I talked myself out of it. In fact, I walked around all day with a big safety pin on the hem and told myself no one cared.) My hair is flyaway and uncooperative--I must run out and get a haircut/deep conditioning/hair transplant. That person just looked at me weird--what did that mean? Is she thinking something bad about me? You see, I don't want to be a slave to these insecurities! I want to have positive, loving thoughts towards myself and the people around me. I want to be calm and even, not quick to worry or get angry or frightened. But it's the endless procession of unwanted thoughts that keep sneaking in--the thoughts that have been dogging me since I was a pre-teen.

It's really hard to incorporate real change in your life. You always want to revert back to what's comfortable, even if what's comfortable is making your life miserable. But you have to start somewhere, and hopefully in time and with practice the route to a more peaceful mind will be the one I start taking.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Weather Patterns














"When we pause, allow a gap, and breathe deeply, we can experience instant refreshment. Suddenly we slow down, look out, and there's the world. It can feel like briefly standing in the eye of a tornado or the still point of a turning wheel. Our mood may be agitated or cheerful. What we see and hear may be chaos or it may be the ocean, the mountains, or birds flying across a clear blue sky. Either way, momentarily our mind is still and we are not pulled in or pushed away by what we are experiencing."--Pema Chodron, from Taking the Leap

I love Pema's new book. It's short and concise like her other books, but is brimming with wisdom. I ended up highlighting something on almost every page. Some of it I had heard before but it was good to reinforce the lesson. Then there were new ideas I hadn't considered.

Today I tried to "lean into" whatever I was experiencing, good or bad. It was very chilly this morning and I was only wearing a short wool coat and no gloves. I missed the "T" and had to wait for what felt like 1/2 hour (more likely it was 10 minutes) for the next train. I was miserable but I tried not to make a big deal out of it like I typically do when I'm uncomfortable. Instead, I thought, I'm very cold, this is true, but that's the weather in New England in the early spring. I'm not the only one suffering. Then I thought of the Italians in L'Aquila, living in their tent cities after the earthquake, and thought, how are they feeling right now? They must be very uncomfortable. My discomfort will end once I'm on the train, but their pain is open-ended.

I thought of my husband last night, sick and miserable with a bad migraine, and how I had wanted to take away his pain, or at least divide it evenly between us. It is easy to think this way when it is someone you love. But I have to take a deep breath before I can consider the suffering of people I have never met.

Later, I started having negative thoughts and my anxiety was high, but I thought, you're just in a bad mood. It's not a big deal and it will pass. Don't take the negative thoughts seriously. You have a job to do that you love, and people in your life who care about you. That's what is important. You have been through this before, and you will go through it again.

This way of thinking didn't necessarily change my mood or make me skip down the street. I'm no pollyanna sunshine. But it does a person good to take a pause, ask himself is it that important? and then move on. Let there be a space between the first negative thought and then the subsequent spinning out, and you might be able to stop yourself from creating unneccesary drama.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Present of Presence

"It seems we all have the tendency to move away from the present moment. It's as if this habit is built into our DNA. At the most basic level, we think all the time and this takes us away. In his teachings on the difference between fantasy and reality, Chogyam Trungpa said that being fully present, having contact with the immediacy of our experience, is reality. Fantasy he described as being lost in thought."--Pema Chodron, from Taking the Leap

I started this blog to experiment with living in the present moment. So far, five months into it, I've been largely unsuccessful...habits being hard to break and all. Take someone who's a daydreamer, a worrier, an avoider, and a romantic, and ask her to stop thinking so much. It's nearly impossible. Yet I've read again and again, in Pema's books and from other Buddhist thinkers, that it's OK to fail; in fact--there is no success or failure. When you find yourself spinning off, you just need to catch yourself and return to the present moment.

One of the times I find it easy to be in the present: my visits with Linda. Linda is the 63 year-old woman with whom I have weekly friendly visits. I like the predictability of our hour and a half together. I ring her buzzer around 7PM and when I tell her who it is, she always cheerfully answers "OKAY!" She meets me at the door wearing either pink or blue scrubs (she doesn't work in a hospital--I didn't know you could just buy scrubs if you weren't in the medical field.) I greet her cat Maxine while Linda goes to get her "iced coffee" (a cup of coffee that she's kept in the fridge all day.) There's always a bowl of pretzels on the tray table situated between her chair and mine. The chairs we sit on are her latest find in the basement, where apparently everyone in her apartment building leaves stuff they don't want. She's practically furnished her apartment with these giveaways.

And then we talk. We talk about her mood, and then I'll tell her how I've been feeling so she doesn't think I'm playing therapist. We talk about our cats, the weather, and what she's been up to with her neighborhood friend, Chris, and his family. They have really embraced Linda as their own and have given her a TV/DVD player, a bed, and a laptop, among other gifts. I feel miserly in comparison--all I've given her is ginger tea (her request) , a cat hanging on a candy cane Christmas ornament, and some Valentine tulips that died prematurely. But of course, I'm not about giving her things, I'm about offering my time. And I did tell her about the music channels she can access on cable--she said she often listens to Soundscapes (new age-y music) before she falls asleep at night, and that it relaxes her.

When we're talking, I try to be fully present for her. I watch myself to make sure I don't start daydreaming about what I'll make for dinner when I get home or if too many pretzels will make me fat. I look her straight in the eye to let her know I'm interested, even when she repeats herself, which is often. I really enjoy our time together because I'm keeping myself in the moment. I try not to plan things to talk about; although her outside world is limited, we still manage to fill the time.

It's really true that you can get out of volunteering as much (or more) than you put in. I highly recommend it.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Wolf at the Door


"A Native American grandfather was speaking to his grandson about violence and cruelty in the world and how it comes about. He said it was as if two wolves were fighting in his heart. One wolf was vengeful and angry, and the other wolf was understanding and kind. The young man asked his grandfather which wolf would win the fight in his heart. And the grandfather answered, "The one that wins will be the one I choose to feed."

So this is our challenge, the challenge for our spiritual practice and the challenge for the world--how can we train right now, not later, in feeding the right wolf?"--Pema Chodron, from Taking the Leap

I sometimes confuse kindness with weakness. Maybe it's because my tendency is to be non-confrontational, which means I go out of my way to please people, sometimes to my own detriment. When insulted, I pretend to turn the other cheek, while inside I'm fuming and wanting to fight back. I haven't yet mastered the art of defending myself in a way that doesn't infuse more anger into the situation. But when I pretend to turn the other cheek, or smile in the face of my critic, I feel weak, defenseless, small. Later I go over in my head all the things I WOULD have said, but even those retorts seem petty and apt to escalate the situation.

In a larger context, I think of people who are able to forgive others for unspeakable acts. Are they weak? Or are they strong for refusing to give into anger and the desire for revenge? I read news story after news story of people hurting one another, and I wonder how many of the victims forgive, and if so, how? Do they not want to contribute anymore hate in the world? That's pretty noble. I have said here before that my basic motto is an eye for an eye. Can I get beyond that? Is that the right thing to do?

Of course, it feels so much better to feel goodness toward others. If I see a father holding his daughter aloft on his shoulders I smile to myself and send them warm thoughts, remembering when I was a little girl and my father carried me in the same way. When I see an older woman in an electric wheelchair speed by me on the sidewalk, I think, good for her, even in the chair she whizzes right by me! And I wish her luck. These are nice moments, moments when I feel connected to others and when giving away kind thoughts is easy. But when confronted with ignorant people, or selfish people, or indifferent people, that's when being kind feels false. It's been said that trying to please people in every situation is a form of manipulation. I want things to go my way, so I'll try to control the situation by being "nice." But there are some situations that I can't control.

Ultimately, it's kindness and understanding that I strive for in my life. Why bring more anger into an already boiling-over world? But I want it to be genuine, not a means to get my own way or to protect myself from hurt.